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The other day C came visiting. Being an Australian I assumed he would like the occasional beer on a warm summer evening. So when pat came his response ‘I don’t drink alcohol’ I was taken aback. Turns out he belongs to a Christian order which prohibits the consumption of alcohol, pork, all kinds of shellfish and any form of work on a Saturday.

 

Now I belong to a family which eats pretty much everything under the sun (though I am impartial to sushi much to A’s dismay!). So when I hear individuals say that I don’t eat so and so because my religion does not permit me, it amazes me. Does God really care about the dietary habits of roughly six billion people who live on this earth (and I’m not even counting the rest of the universe)?

 

It is commonly believed that Indians are vegetarian, but in reality almost 60% of the country’s population eats meat products in some form or the other. And though Hindus abstain from beef, I also know of several (including Tamil Brahmins!) who love a nice juicy steak. I have also heard of Mormons avoiding caffeinated beverages, Jewish laws restricting consumption of certain dairy products and fish, Islamic ‘Haram’ foods like frozen vegetables with sauce, some margarines and even bread or bread products that contain dried yeast. And I won’t even get into Buddhist eating practices which I have written about at length here.

 

I have often toyed with the idea of becoming a practising Epicurean. Epicureanism is a philosophy founded in 307 AD by Greek philosopher Epicurus. He advocated a lifestyle which derived the greatest pleasure possible during one’s lifetime, though in moderation to avoid the suffering incurred by overindulgence. The emphasis was placed on pleasures of the mind rather than on those physical. Therefore, according to Epicurus, with whom a person eats is of greater importance than what is eaten.

 

My question is therefore does it really matter to God what one eats? Or will we have to produce a list of all the things we have eaten in our lifetime on Judgment Day?

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The Asian landscape is dotted with temples. From the renowned (and certainly wealthy) Tirupati in the state of Andhra Pradesh in India to the Emerald Buddha (or Phra Kaew Morakot) in Thailand, each of these places of worship have their own unique ‘prasadam’ or temple food, depending on which part of the world you are in.

 

The origin of organic food is perhaps from the Buddhist temples of South East Asia. Traditionally, temple food is made from seasonal vegetables handpicked from mountains and gardens. The ‘ohshinchae’ or the five simulative vegetables garlic, green onions, leeks, wild rocamboles (or garlic) and Chinese squill are not permitted in any offering given to God. The belief is that these bring bad luck, evil spirits and lust. Meat too is avoided. The lack of these ingredients naturally makes temple food bland but positively healthy. Strangely, this genre of food has now made its way to chic restaurants in cities like Seoul claiming to offer ‘real temple food’. Some also go as far as to offer ‘fusion temple food’. Makes one ask, what next?

 

In Hinduism too food plays a central role in rituals and worship. ‘Prasada’, in Sanskrit, is the offering made by devotees to God and then consumed. Like Buddhists, Hindus too don’t offer onions, garlic, mushrooms or meat ascertaining Buddhism’s deep foundation from within Hinduism. Like Buddhist scriptures, Vedic scriptures and Ayurveda explain that these foods excite the more passionate elements of the human psycho-physical constitution. Therefore, the food offered to God consists primarily of rice, vegetables, sweets and fruits. Some Hindu temples are renowned for their prasadam like the famous ‘laddu’ available in Tirupati prepared from ‘boondi’ (little sugary balls), dried fruits, saffron, spices and sugar. The present consumption for this is a staggering 1, 40,000 pieces daily. Such is the craze that the Special Officer at this temple has recently announced that a buffer stock of 3, 00,000 laddus will be kept ready at all times.

 

Interestingly, some Hindu ceremonies completely contradict everything the Vedic scriptures say as far as food is concerned. For example, the Bengali community in Eastern India offers lamb or mutton, in the form of a sacrificial goat to Bhadra Kali, a form of Goddess Durga. In the historic Dakhineshwar Temple in the state of West Bengal in India, Goddess Kali turns vegetarian once every seven years. The legend goes that the founder Rani Rasmani had a son-in-law who was vegetarian. Unable to bear the sight of blood he pleaded with his mother-in-law who promised him that Goddess Kali will not be offered meat once every seven years .

 

And finally to take it a step further the Goddess is sometimes even offered country liquor by organizers. Just goes to say that the gods can have fun too.